Baltimore City Police DepartmentCitizens Academy: Week 1-History, Ethics, & Body Worn Cameras

I am super excited to share my new learning adventure with you! As you may have heard in the news over the past few years, the Baltimore City Police Department as been under fire for reports of police brutality and corruption. We’ve all heard of Freddie Gray, the riots, and the current investigation into an officer who had allegedly planted drugs on a suspect and was caught recreating the scene with his body camera on.

An investigation into the force’s practices has resulted in the BCPD being under a consent decree with the Department of Justice. If you are really interested, here is the full report of the DOJ’s investigation.

With all the terrible and controversial stories coming out of the news about racial inequality in policing, abuse of power, shootings at the hands of the police, the increased militarization of our police forces, and the subsequent protests and riots, it is more important than ever to understand both sides.

Many people will argue that our officers need better training. What better way to understand what kind of training they are getting as well as be able to put ourselves in their shoes a bit and understand the decision making process behind their actions than to attend a training similar to what they get?

Whether you support the men and women in blue, Black Lives Matter,  or both (yes, it is possible!), we could only benefit from understanding what goes on behind the scenes in our police departments.

In it’s third year, this academy consists of 11 sessions. I will be covering each section every week. We also got to sign up for a ride-along, which is an opportunity available to anyone who is interested, FYI.

The first night of the citizens academy covered introductions, the history of the BPD, ethics, and some basic training and information on the Body Worn Cameras (BWC).


The citizens academy is led by Director of Training, Pamela Davis and created by Sergeant Rob Corso along with the Community Engagement Unit.  The purpose of the academy is to increase transparency and invoke discussion and communication.

As academy cadets (not sure about that title, but I’ll go with it), we are given the opportunity to 1) Do some of the same training as officers, including traffic stops, defense training & tactics, and critical thinking training; 2) meet people within the agency, understand the different units within the force (e.g. forensics, homicide, aviation, K-9), and develop contacts; 3) Walk away with resources in order to help our community.

To start, Director Davis gave us some insight into the extent of training that officers receive. They are mandated to provide 18 hours of in-service training, but have typically provided 40 hours. They have recently doubled that to 80 hours worth of training. This training involves topics such as critical decision making, de-escalation, communication skills, recognizing those in crisis, and constitutional law.

A diverse group of cadets-older, younger, and various interesting occupational backgrounds, we were asked to introduce ourselves including our reasons for attending and personal backgrounds.  We were encouraged to share any experiences we may have had with the police, both good and bad.

Notably, the officers were very open to hearing issues that people have had in the past and acknowledged many of the concerns that were brought up. Director Davis expressed a genuine interest in learning from us ways in which they can do better and implement better training for the force.

Baltimore History

Detective Edward Gillespie then introduced himself and led the group in a study of Baltimore history, beginning with the rise of immigration between 1814-1840, and the subsequent formation of the police force.

A sucker for academics, intellectual discussions, and 50-cent words, I was really impressed by Detective Gillespie.  He has been on the force for 12 years, but his first career was in education, and it shows.  He quoted Dostoyevsky, Benjamin Franklin and British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”).

Not surprisingly then, he led us on a fascinating trip through history beginning with anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment, the rise of nativism, intolerance, the Know Nothing Party (cue flashbacks to middle school history), street violence, and ultimately, the need for a police force to restore order.

In 1854, the first mayor and city council were elected. 1857 saw the first plans drawn up for a nascent police force. By 1860, the force came under state control. Back then, the they were influenced by the Know Nothing Party, basically aiming to keep immigrants under control and stay in their place. They were also influenced by the Knights of the Golden Circle coming out of the South-elite landowners affiliated with the KKK who in 1866 sought to spread slavery throughout the south and the Caribbean.

As an exercise, we broke off into groups-The Know Nothings, immigrants, and Police Officers, and considered questions that helped us understand the perspectives of each group. This was useful in understanding how our neighborhoods came to be fractured off (even today), the early influence of the newly formed police force, and even more interestingly, some parallels with issues we see today in terms of anti-immigrant nativism, pressure groups, and the police force’s involvement in maintaining order.

Det. Gillespie then segued into a Venn diagram showing the overlap between enforcing the law, community expectations, and procedure in order consider the balancing act an effective force must manage.  In the context of this balance, Det. Gillespie gave enforcement examples like Baltimore City’s “zero-tolerance” policy and the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Sweet spot=Following the law, procedure, and not pissing off the community.


Body Worn Cameras

Next was the fun part. We got to learn all about the new Body Worn Cameras (BWCs) and try them out.  The BWC program was rolled out in Baltimore City about 18 months ago amid controversy over police brutality and pressure to hold officers more accountable.

The PBD has an $11.4 million  5-year contract with Axon. Each camera costs about $400.  You can find specific tech specs here. Data is stored automatically and kept for at least 4 years. Data can only be deleted if non-evidentiary and only by the BWC Unit, not the individual officer.

Eighteen-hundred out of 2400 sworn officers are assigned a body camera, including all personnel below the 8th rank, depending on their unit.  BWCs are only assigned to officers working in an enforcement capacity.

As some have learned from recent news involving an officer allegedly recording himself planting evidence, every camera has a 30 second recording buffer in standby mode. This means that the camera is always recording in 30 second loops (but without sound) before an officer turns the camera on manually to record.

At the start of a shift, each officer gets his or her assigned camera before roll call. During the shift, an officer should turn his camera on for calls for service, investigative and enforcement actions, transporting a detainee, while following a medic or tow truck, confrontational encounters, and any time deemed in the best interest of the public.   They may use BWCs when on private property if authorized or with legal authority and reasonable suspicion.

We discussed officers’ responses to the BWCs.  Most were hesitant at first, but many have come to find them invaluable. According to Sgt. Corso, they have proven to be helpful with false complaints, solving crimes, and prosecuting cases.

The next class will be covering the Internal Affairs Unit, Constitutional Law, and Baltimore Gangs. Stay tuned for more!

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